Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott

Millenium Hall is a book I have meant to read for years and when one of the Visiting Fellows at Chawton House Library likened the fellowships to having one's own 'Millenium Hall' - even down to the fruit and vegetables from the Walled Garden and the chickens (all the fellows at that point were women but it's not always so) . I knew it was time to read it and put it on the list for the reading group.

Sarah Scott creates a sanctuary for women at Millenium Hall and like Chawton House Library men are welcomed. Unlike Chawton House Library she seeks to reveal to men their abuses of women; Chawton House Library seeks to educate all equally about the neglected women writers of our literary history. The male narrator of Scott's novel provides a positive and engaging account of Millenium Hall as he and his companion, Lamont, discover it by accident on an excursion in the countryside. He describes it as an 'earthly paradise' and throughout the novel his glowing reports of the house and its inhabitants is interspersed with the stories of the women that live there.

The women at Millenium Hall have all suffered abuse by men: unhappy marriages, tyrannical husbands, attempted rape, the prejudice of fathers, illegitimacy and abandonment. Together they have created an idyllic female community and Scott's novel presents us with a utopian vision for another way of living other than the assumption that women must have their lives determined by men: husbands, or fathers and brothers if they fail to marry. Scott's women have not failed because they reject wedlock for themselves, instead they carve out fulfilling lives in a different and more independent way.

While utopian Scott's novel is not revolutionary; she does not seek to overturn the status quo - the women at Millenium Hall declare themselves in favour of marriage - which with the development of a Christian and philanthropic community, she in fact upholds conservative values. Her novel is semi-autobiographical, with her own experiences of an unhappy marriage, and a life-long deep female friendship, have been transformed into creating a vision of another way of living for those that wish to choose it.